Category Archives: Literature

tumblr account

check out our partner blog, field notes on biology and culture, for short postings, links, quoted, and photographs surrounding the synapses between biology, literature, ethnography, and the “feeling of being there” with wildlife.

Natural history books you should read before you die

I can’t say enough good things about The Natural Histories Project / Natural History Network, birthed out of a series of workshops to initiate dialogue between ecologists, geologists, educators, university presidents, and artists about the re-imaging of natural history. The audio and video clips of different perspectives on natural history are fantastic. But what really caught my eye was the Journal of Natural History and Experience, in particular the ongoing series of “101 Natural History Books That You Should Read Before You Die.”

So far, the (early) list includes the following.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm by Alexander Skutch

The Art of Falconry by Frederick von Hohenstaufen

Field Notes on Science and Nature by Michael Canfield

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinocital Regions of America by Alexander von Humboldt

It’s a great list so far (myself only having read, and only then in part, half of these). Having a community-agreed upon canon of works to read, or a reading list to guide you in general, is always welcome. Like having a steady professor-friend by your side to offer advice only an insider would harbor.

Lives of muskrat lymphocytes

Large lymphocyte from a normal blood film

One of my favorite essays by the immunologist-poet, Miroslav Holub, describes the symphony of cellular life enacted after a muskrat drowns in the writer’s pool and is shot by a neighbor. The scene itself is grim yet fairly boring and commonplace; dead animals, be it a robin flown into our window or a white-footed mouse decapitated by our cat, seem to be an ordinary part of suburban life. But Holub views the situation from the interior view of the animal and with the sense and extrapolation of a poet. His interest in the phenomenon of death lies in the cellular process that are taking place long after we conceive of the animal as “dead.” While ordinarily we see the spectrum of alive to dead as having a definitive moment of change from A to B, a universe of interactions, an ecosystem of cellular bodies, continues to communicate, move, exist. I’ve copied my favorite excerpt from the essay, that of the lymphocytes (an immunologist’s specialty), below.

So there was this muskrattish courage, an elemental bravery transcending life.

But mainly, among the denaturing proteins and the disintegrating peptide chains, the white blood cells lived, really lived, as anyone knows who has ever peeked into a microscope, or anyone knows who remembers how live tissue cells were grown from a sausage in a Cambridge laboratory (the sausage having certainly gone through a longer funereal procedure than blood that is still flowing). There were these shipwrecked white blood cells in the cooling ocean, millions and billions of them on the concrete, on the rags, in the wrung-out murkiness. Bewildered by the unusual temperature and salt concentration, lacking unified signals and gentle ripples of the vascular endothelium, they were nevertheless alive and searching for whatever they were destined to search for. The T lymphocytes were using their receptors to distinguish the muskrat’s self markers from nonself bodies. The B lymphocytes were using their antibody molecules to pick up everything the muskrat had learned about the outer world in the course of its evolution. Plasma cells were dropping antibodies in various places. Phagocyte cells were creeping like amoebas on the bottom of the pool, releasing their digestive granules in an attempt to devour its infinite surface. And here and there a blast cell divided, creating two new, last cells.

Science writing as art form

This quote from Michael Regnier of The Guardian, writing about “science writing” as a form of literary expression rather than reportage, expresses my thoughts on writing creatively about science rather perfectly. And Regnier gives the example of Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar for the win.

“But let’s not forget that writing is an art form as well as a tool. Let’s take inspiration from the science we report and, from time to time, experiment with the way we write about it.”

Charles Darwin on beauty

[From The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), Chapter III: Maldonado]

July 26th, 1832

Maldonado is situated on the northern bank of the Plata, and not very far from the mouth of the estuary. It is a most quiet, forlorn, little town; built, as is universally the case in these countries, with the streets running at right angles to each other, and having in the middle a large plaza or square, which, from its size, renders the scantiness of the population more evident. It possesses scarcely any trade; the exports being confined to a few hides and living cattle. The inhabitants are chiefly landowners, together with a few shopkeepers and the necessary tradesmen, such as blacksmiths and carpenters, who do nearly all the business for a circuit of fifty miles round. The town is separated from the river by a band of sand-hillocks, about a mile broad: it is surrounded, on all other sides, by an open slightly-undulating country, covered by one uniform layer of fine green turf, on which countless herds of cattle, sheep, and horses graze. There is very little land cultivated even close to the town. A few hedges, made of cacti and agave, mark out where some wheat or Indian corn has been planted. The features of the country are very similar along the whole northern bank of the Plata. The only difference is, that here the granitic hills are a little bolder. The scenery is very uninteresting; there is scarcely a house, an enclosed piece of ground, or even a tree, to give it an air of cheerfulness. Yet, after being imprisoned for some time in a ship, there is a charm in the unconfined feeling of walking over boundless plains of turf. Moreover, if your view is limited to a small space, many objects possess beauty. Some of the smaller birds are brilliantly coloured; and the bright green sward, browsed short by the cattle, is ornamented by dwarf flowers, among which a plant, looking like the daisy, claimed the place of an old friend. What would a florist say to whole tracts, so thickly covered by the Verbena melindres, as, even at a distance, to appear of the most gaudy scarlet?

Fictionalizing science writing and “The Distance of the Moon”

Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, a collection of short stories of a science-inspired nature, is one of my favorite pieces of literature. Calvino was a fantastically imaginative writer, and his Cosmicomics highlight his ability like no other. The stories in Cosmicomics exemplify what Miroslav Holub implied when he commented that play allows the artist to “avoid the aridities of rationalism”—Calvino’s imaginings are anything but dry. Each takes its origin from some brief, abstract concept drawn from the hard sciences. In the case of the collection’s first story, “The Distance of the Moon,” Calvino opens with the following excerpt:

At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth’s waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.

From this deduction, Calvino injects the statement with life, character, a host of emotions and interactions. He plays with the feminization of the moon, why, from a storyteller’s point of view, She might have been pushed away from the Earth and what effort Earth’s inhabitants might have made to re-reach Her. The tale begins, in effect, to describe Calvino’s greater reinterpreting of how the universe was created, how forms so numerous came into being:

How well I know! — old Qfwfq cried,– the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full — nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light — it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there. But the whole business of the Moon’s phases worked in a different way then: because the distances from the Sun were different, and the orbits, and the angle of something or other, I forget what; as for eclipses, with Earth and Moon stuck together the way they were, why, we had eclipses every minute: naturally, those two big monsters managed to put each other in the shade constantly, first one, then the other.

To me, Calvino performed something through these stories—12 in the original collection—that the sphere of science writing, as a general whole, has seemed to have neglected or perhaps even forgotten. Cosmicomics was published in 1965—when the author was 43 years old—and in the decades since, few writers have produced the same form of fictionalized “toying” with scientific fact, making of empirical research something new, what Michel de Certeau conceptualized as reappropriation. In his pivotal The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau wrote of the public’s interpretation of information and texts—scientifically based or not—as acts of consumption, and as such, likened to everyday resistance against a top-down dynamic between information producers and consumers. The consumer of information, the theorist wrote, “takes neither the position of the author nor an author’s position. He invents in texts something different from what they intended.” In this case, the information drawn from science, to de Certeau, did not have to be the final frontier—instead, one could formulate fact into new configurations.

Discussing Cosmicomics, Jeanette Winterson described Calvino as an adamant believer that art is a force that can unite various and seemingly disconnected parts of the self and the social body. Science, as one element of this greater unit, should be only the starting point in bringing together strands of thought and creativity. Winterson wrote, “For him [Calvino], literature as a force going forward, postwar, would be a literature that could encompass everything—science, history, politics, fantasy—but would be in thrall to none of these.”

What has become of this encompassing since Calvino’s time? Science writing today is undoubtedly creative, clear, communicative, to name a few characteristics of the craft. Yet foremost as an educative endeavor—to foster scientific literacy, to raise societal awareness, to bridge scientific practice and everyday life—current science writing is, and in some ways, as practiced, must be, thrall to the worldview and positivism of science and its methodology. Any effort to produce scientifically inspired fiction is given the label of “sci-fi,” when in fact is was Calvino who redefined the term to mean something entirely different. Most recently, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptilean imagining of the musings of an 18th-century Turkish female tortoise in Selborne, England—stands out as an example that fulfills this niche of literature. Of the book and its author, The Washington Post Book World writes, Klinkenborg “rescues us from dailynessfrom, as Timothy would say, our terrible speedand makes our world again large and wondrous.”

Calvino’s Cosmicomics is about making our would wondrous, even those elements of that world we typically relegate to laboratories, observatories, and remote field sites instead of being seen as inspirational sources of creativity. Of Cosmicomics, Salman Rushdie wrote that “Perhaps only Calvino could have created a work that combines scientific erudition, wild fantasy and a humane wit that prevents the edifices of these stories from toppling into whimsy.” I would hope, for one, that Rushdie was incorrect in making such a suggestion, that Calvino’s work was only the beginning of a movement in literature, in particular the short story form. The products of Cosmicomics continually inspire my own thoughts on writing and literature, serve as the best kind of example of something to strive for in words. And they do so for others as well, in varied formats and mediums. Take for example, and enjoy, the following short filmby an Israeli visual communications student, dubbed “shulamitsitself a reimagining and reappropriation of Calvino’s “The Distance of the Moon.”

Creaturely and scales in prose

I only came across Devin Johnston’s Creaturely and Other Essays haphazardly—too much time browsing through bookstores, always on alert for hybrids of biology and literature, works with threads connecting them to writers like Verlyn Klinkenborg, Lewis Thomas, Miroslav Holub, Annie Dillard, Jean-Henri Fabre, Andrew Dunn. As a reader and writer I am more often than not drawn to seemingly random associations and shifts in scale—those leaps from the small to the large, from the particular to the universal, from the commonplace to the theoretical, from the microcosm to the greater macrocosm. Lewis Thomas believed that the ability to make this shift was a trait inherent to the life of both poet and scientist. In Thomas’s own words, both seek out “the points of connection between things in the world which seem to most people unconnected.” In Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau saw in Walden Pond a plethora of microcosms through which he could explain the world. He referred to the fish of Walden, or more specifically the pickerel (Esox americanus),  as “Walden all over and all through: are themselves small Waldens.”

Grass pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus). Image courtesy of Joshua Knuth.

The pickerel was Thoreau’s symbol, and as symbol contained an imposed meaning, allowing the fish to function as launching pad into the larger world the author sought to express—as the founder of Transcendentalism, Thoreau saw in the pickerel a greater spiritual nature, a small version of the universe’s meaning. Loren Eiseley did the same in locating in the fungus Pilobolus sporangium the greater metaphor of humanity’s drive to explore the cosmos and the wastefulness of expenditure in nature and culture.

Sporangia of a related fungus, Pilobolus kleinii. Image courtesy of George Barron.

Unlike Lewis Thomas or Loren Eiseley, but like Annie Dillard, Devin Johnston is no scientist. Like Dillard, instead of systematic study, Johnston “explores the neighborhood.” The prose essays in Creaturely are similar to Dillard’s years spent observing the landscape of Tinker Creek—they take place in St. Louis, each beginning and ending with descriptions and musings from walks along paths, streets, parks. As Johnston says, they keep with the etymology of the word digression, and the writer sees himself as a more-urban Thoreau, acting “for a time as a self-appointed inspector of thunderstorms and starlings, sycamores and squirrels, making my daily rounds.” But the collection is somewhat more wide-ranging than Dillard, and certainly more so than Thoreau. Johnston brings together a universe, darting from William Blake to peer-reviewed animal behavior research to the ultraviolet spectrum of light to, like Eiseley, the cosmos:

A dozen starlings lie scattered on the lawn, their wings fanned out to absorb the heat of the sun, letting its ultraviolet rays burn away the microbes in their feathers. Occasionally one rises in agitation and stalks among the sunbathers, pecking at tail feathers, eye darting from one to another. Beneath the dark surface of the feathers—slick as a sheath of negatives—an explosion of stars extends outward from each of their beaks. These markings become larger and more widely spaced down the breast, expanding from small dashes to arrowheads. The pattern suggests the reverse of needle-point, each bright mark a stitch. Or so it looks to me. What the starling sees is another matter.

Continue reading